Many students around the world feel they need to listen to music while they study or revise, believing it helps them ‘concentrate better’.
Some even say that without music, they can’t revise as it’s too quiet. On the flip side, there are those who find music incredibly distracting and need silence to function best during work or study.
So is it really true that listening to music helps students study better? Or is it really a distraction they’re not aware of? Here’s what science has to say about it.
The Mozart Effect
The theory that listening to music, particularly classical music, makes people smarter, was developed in the early 1990s.
It was dubbed the Mozart Effect by Dr Gordon Shaw, who conducted research on the brain capacity for spatial reasoning.
Along with his graduate student Xiodan Leng, he developed a model of the brain and used musical notes to represent brain activity, which resembled that of classical music notes when analysed.
This led them to test the results of classical music on college students’ brains. In 1993, he reported that a group of college students increased their IQ levels as much as nine points as a result of listening to Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major.”
When it was reported, the media ran with it, proclaiming that ‘classical music helps kids become smarter’.
This led to the birth of development toys involving classical music for children, and advice to pregnant women to place headphones on their bellies for their babies to hear classical music so that they would, purportedly, be born smart.
The Mozart effect was later found to be misleading, and some now call it the Mozart myth.
This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, college students were only tested on spatial intelligence, which required them to do tasks such as folding a paper or maze-solving, which is just one type of intelligence.
Ten years after the theory became wildly popular, a team of researchers gathered the results from almost 40 studies conducted on the Mozart Effect, and found very little evidence that listening to classical music really does help performance of specific tasks.
They found zero evidence that IQ levels can actually increase when listening to classical music.
Therefore, it has not been proven that listening to classical music, or any music for that matter, actually makes a person smarter or more intelligent.
Music does improve your mood
However, listening to music can make you a happier person, as music releases pleasurable emotions and increases dopamine levels.
According to research, listening to music triggers the release of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of happiness and excitement.
Studies have found that people may be better at solving problems when they are in a positive mood compared to when they are in a negative or neutral mood.
Music that is relaxing also helps students with stress and anxiety, thus leading them to study more efficiently.
Research has found that listening to music actually lowers your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is usually responsible for feelings of stress and anxiety.
Since music helps to chill you out, you can also sleep better. When you have better sleep habits, you tend to be less stressed out, which leads to a more productive day of studying.
For long study sessions, background music is helpful as students are more focused and motivated when they are in a good mood, which helps them endure studying for a longer time.
So if you need music to relax and get you in a better mood, which leads to a better quality study session, then it’s worth a try.
It can hinder learning
Several studies show that students who listen to music while completing tasks such as reading and writing tend to be less efficient, and don’t absorb much information compared to those who don’t listen to music.
In addition, loud or ‘angry’ music has negative effects on reading comprehension, as well as mood. This makes them less efficient on the tasks.
Research does suggest that music helps with memorisation. Theories indicate that by being in a positive mood, memory formation works better.
However, students who use music to help them memorise often find it hard to recall the information later as the test is taken in a silent environment. Information recall has been proven to be more effective when it’s done in a similar environment as the one it was memorised in.
Therefore, students who prefer studying in a quiet environment benefit more when it comes to recalling information later on a test.
The type of music does matter
According to a study done at the University of Phoenix, as well as various other studies, listening to music with lyrics is quite distracting while you read, study, and write.
They found that your brain struggles to process the lyrics and focus on your schoolwork at the same time. Basically, you are multi-tasking, which according to research, actually can decrease your IQ by ten points.
It makes sense that if you are using your precious concentration levels on listening and singing along to your favourite tunes, you’re being distracted from focusing on your studies and writing tasks.
However, the Mozart effect may not be a complete myth, after all. Research does suggest that although listening to classical music might not increase a students’ intelligence, it could help students study better.
A study done in France, published in Learning and Individual Differences, found that students who listened to a lecture while classical music was played in the background performed better on a quiz when compared to those who went through the lecture without music.
The researchers gathered that the background music put students at ease, making them more receptive to information.
They wrote, “It is possible that music, provoking a change in the learning environment, influenced the students’ motivation to remain focused during the lecture, which led to better performance on the multiple-choice quiz.”
In summary, if you find listening to music a distraction, then it’s best not to try using it as a way to make you a better or smarter student.
However, if you find it relaxing and puts you in a pleasant mood, then try playing soothing music in the background, without lyrics, so it doesn’t distract you or prevent you from studying efficiently.
Like many learning processes, it really depends on the individual and what works for you.